Then Governor Bill Clinton, right, and then Senator Al Gore, left, on the 1992 Buscapade campaign kick off tour in Cleveland, Ohio.

Then Governor Bill Clinton, right, and then Senator Al Gore, left, on the 1992 Buscapade campaign kick off tour in Cleveland, Ohio. Joseph Sohm/

Reinventing Government: Learning From a Principle-Driven Reform Initiative

Creating a reform agenda that allows civil servants to be part of the reform can be a huge force-multiplier.

It was Saturday, March 13, 1993: The snow was falling heavily, but Bob Stone, Bob Knisely and I were completely absorbed in excited chatter about what we should say when we met with Vice President Al Gore the next day. 

Several days earlier, the three of us had been invited to share our ideas about how the vice president might proceed with his new mandate from President Clinton to “reinvent the government.” Gore was to deliver a plan of action to the president in six months. His newly-appointed advisor, Elaine Kamarck, received the task of getting this off the ground and she had invited the three of us to talk with her, based on the advice of David Osborne, a co-author of the best-selling book Reinventing Government.

We shared our ideas for what the vice president should focus on and how he might organize the reform effort, which was to be led by civil servants. This was a departure from traditional reform efforts, which typically turned to distinguished business leaders for direction. We were surprised when Kamarck asked us to share ideas with the vice president on the upcoming Sunday, when he had a break in his calendar.

So, Bob Stone invited Knisely and me over to his house on Saturday to sketch out what our advice would be. Our visit with Kamarck was the first time I’d been in the Old Executive Office Building. I had never been in the White House or met a president or vice president before. When invited by Kamarck to meet with the vice president, I immediately informed my boss at the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) and was told that it was more appropriate for the Comptroller General to meet with the Vice President. I was okay with that, but Kamarck insisted that I be in the meeting, not my boss’s boss’s boss.

We covered different elements of what could make for a successful reform program. My advice was largely organizational and process-driven, based on lessons from prior federal reform efforts and visits overseas to see reform initiatives in other countries; Bob Stone’s insights were based on his experience in helping run the Defense Department’s military installations (Stone was the career deputy assistant secretary in charge of all military bases). Bob Knisely discussed how to engage the federal workforce, drawing from his experience working as a career senior executive at various civilian agencies.  

Stone advocated grounding the effort in a set of principles that would inspire civil servants to want to lead the reforms. He had led a similar strategy to inspire successful change in the operations of military bases and thought this would work on a governmentwide reform initiative.

We developed what we called the “Gold Card” with a vision statement: “Create a Government That Works Better and Costs Less.” This was supported by four principles and a set of strategies for acting on those principles. These were based partly on what Stone had developed for his Model Installations military reform initiative, partly on Osborne’s reinventing government principles, and partly on the then-popular Total Quality Management principles.

Vision:  Create a government that works better and costs less

Principles: We will invent a government that puts people first, by

  • Putting Customers First
  • Cutting Red Tape
  • Empowering Employees to Get Results
  • Cutting Back to Basics

Strategies: We will

  • Create a clear sense of mission
  • Steer more, row less
  • Delegate authority and responsibility
  • Help communities solve their own problems
  • Replace regulations with incentives
  • Develop budgets based on outcomes
  • Inject competition into everything we do
  • Search for market, not administrative, solutions
  • Measure our successes by customer satisfaction

Gore bought into the use of a principles-driven reform initiative, intuitively understanding that large scale change would need to be driven by a compelling vision and principles—not by proposals to reorganize the government. In fact, he told us “don’t move boxes, fix what’s inside the boxes.”  

Gore recruited us on the spot to help run what became the National Performance Review. These principles and strategies guided the work of nearly 300 people working on the NPR team to produce a set of action-oriented recommendations by September 1993 for the President to announce publicly. But more importantly, the principles became the driving force for the subsequent implementation of the reinventing government effort over the following eight years.

Lessons for Today’s Leaders 

In any large-scale transformation effort, leaders can’t be everywhere and explain their ideas to each employee. Developing a compelling vision, with guiding principles and strategies that are meaningful to individuals, allows employees to translate and adapt them to their own workplaces.

Prior reform efforts, such as the Hoover Commission’s emphasis on economy, efficiency, and effectiveness, centered on priorities important to the president,  Congress, and the public. But they didn’t necessarily engage federal employees. Creating a reform agenda that allows civil servants to see themselves as part of the reform can be a huge force-multiplier in getting action from all corners of the government, where officials at all levels carry out their missions to serve the Nation quietly and effectively.

Learn More 

To help government employees understand how they could act on the principles developed by the NPR in their own workplace, a video, narrated by Gore, was subsequently developed to explain them. You can find the links on YouTube:

Part 1 (9:47): Empower Employees to Get Results 

Part 2 (9:54): Put Customers First

Part 3 (6:26): Cut Red Tape

Part 4 (6:49): Cut Back to Basics

And if you’d like more on the organization and evolution of the National Performance Review, the National Archives has preserved the NPR website in its “cyber cemetery.” It’s a bit quaint; it was one of the first 100 websites in the world when first created, and the final report to President Clinton in 1993 was the first government document posted on the World Wide Web.

Image via Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.